Chained for Life wastes no time introducing its main topic. A quote crawls the screen expressing that actors have to be beautiful, because being beautiful allows them to play anything. Soon, we see our beautiful actress, Mabel (Jess Weixler) walking as a blind woman into an operating room where a surgeon slices at a disfigured face. She knocks a jar off a table, smashing it, and the doctor runs to her.
This is a scene of a movie within the movie that strives to be a through-line to cover how actors are represented both in front of and behind the camera. The face the doctor operates on belongs to Rosenthal (Adam Pearson), a young man with neurofibromatosis, an affliction which gives the face a lumpy and malformed appearance. Rosenthal both as actor and character has this defect, and it’s his treatment by the cast and crew that is Chained for Life‘s central focus. What unravels is a mix of exploitation, political correctness, sincerity, and fiction.
Chained for Life
Director: Aaron Schimberg
Release Date: July 18, 2018 (Fantasia)
Chained for Life is beautifully framed. Long shots focus on the film’s most important concern–the face. A scene in which Mabel demonstrates different emotional expressions to Rosenthal focuses a single close-up on Mabel’s face through most of the conversation, saving time before turning and lingering on Rosenthal. This is closely followed by Rosenthal rehearsing his first scene, in which the camera is set firmly in place as Rosenthal attempts to step out of the shadows and deliver a single line in a convincing manner. All we see is either darkness or his face, which at first does make us feel uncomfortable or guilty for staring.
Watching the movie itself is an experience in grappling with these issues. Would it be more comfortable to know Rosenthal is only a man under makeup? Isn’t it good that people with his affliction are being faithfully represented on screen? Isn’t it nice that he has a job? The cast and crew themselves ask these questions between takes, and even the director struggles on one exploitative nude scene. Of course, we view that nudity, as well, which doesn’t put the film clear of its own representational crisis.
And that’s how it ought to be. Schimberg creates a bare platform for these questions that pokes at his audience’s sense of good taste, and it works. These questions linger after Chained for Life rolls its credits.
Unfortunately, most of the reason the questions will linger is because Chained for Life does little to answer them. In fact, it doesn’t do much of anything. The film within the film is being shot at an old hospital where the disfigured actors spend their nights. Not only that, but bodies have been found in the area, the attacks of a loose killer only described as having scars on his face.
Also, Mabel the actress might just be developing feelings for Rosenthal, and the director is considering letting him go in favor of an actor under makeup. All of this, wrapped around the movie-within-a-movie and the ethical issues of its cast should make for a packed plot. It doesn’t. Schimberg subverts expectations in the worst possible way. A moment’s tension builds as if an emotional outburst or some major reveal might be about to happen, but then it turns out it’s just a part of the film within the film or the actors playing with the cameras or a dream which then becomes a scene within the film. And all this bleeding of reality and fiction, fact and film, could be interesting if any major moments existed to leave a person questioning what happened. It lacks that. Any semblance of a major climax is dissolved and invalidated by the final scenes, leaving the film exactly where it started.
As if it were too afraid to look at itself, Chained for Life only dangles interesting questions, dillehmas, and possible plot threads but fails to make a point with any of them. Great photography and a compelling concept aren’t enough to excuse its lingering in the shadows, obscuring anything of meaning.